Continued from here
I stared at Suji, shocked. I was too stunned to retort that Ponnammal was not going to a higher calling in London, she was not getting an education, she would merely be doing the same menial work, but in a strange place where she knew nobody, where there would be no one to help her deal with the new place, language, climate, customs, people….. But all I could do was stare back at Suji and then walk back silently to my flat. Once inside, I sat down, my head in my hands. Yes, there was a lot of truth in what Suji had said. Who was I to judge what was good or not good for Ponnammal? She could certainly do with a break from her husband. Who was I to grudge her this opportunity? She was resilient, had coped with so many horrors in her life with dignity and pride, perhaps she would do the same this time as well. She was resourceful, so maybe she would learn to navigate her way through London. Maybe she really craved some privacy, battered as she was now by the ceaseless demands from all around her. Maybe it would all turn out just fine. But I would talk to Ponnammal about it and make sure that Suji had not twisted her arm into agreeing to go, and that she was at least aware of some of the issues she would face in London.
Ponnammal did not want to talk to me about London. She was due to depart in a month, during which time she continued to work for me and all the others in our building, barring a couple of days when she had to take care of passport and visa formalities. She deftly changed the topic anytime I spoke to her, and she was back to her sullen, silent self. Even Chitra, who by now had other friends and interests, was not able to break through that barrier. Finally I gave up trying, and told her that she should write to me (I gave her a stack of stamped, addressed envelopes) and tell me all about her life there, and if there was any problem, or if she was unhappy, she was to let me know, and I would try everything in my power to help her. She took the envelopes from me in silence.
This was a low period for me. Suji and I had another heated argument about the Ponnammal situation. I was convinced that I was right about Ponnammal’s trip to London being a huge mistake. Suji was just as adamant that I was being small-minded and selfish, and that Ponnammal would not just be fine, but actually thrive, away from her awful surroundings. After that, Suji and I were not on talking terms. I tried a few times to revive our afternoon gossip sessions, but she was cool and distant, and I gave up. I thought that she was being extremely petty about the whole matter, but if that is what she wanted, so be it.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what Suji had told me. I felt very uncomfortable as conflicting questions and ideas whirled around my mind. Was I really a hypocrite? Were my motives in not wanting Ponnammal to go truly selfless? Was I really the best judge of what was best for Ponnammal? Did it not imply a certain sense of superiority on my part for thinking that Ponnammal would not be able to cope in a new environment? Who was I to decide what was the better environment for her, to think that she would be happier here among her kind, in surroundings that she was familiar and comfortable with? Were not new experiences vital parts of growing as a human being? Or did I think that Ponnammal was not quite as human as others, less equal somehow? My mind veered from one extreme to the other as I questioned all my assumptions and ideas I had taken for granted without really thinking about them. On balance, though, I was more convinced than not that Ponnammal would rue her decision.
Ponnammal left a couple of months ago. I feel ashamed to admit it, but after about a week of missing her, I got back to my old routine. I got Mrs. Mukherji’s Bengali-speaking maidservant to work for me as well, and if something good came out of all this, it was my growing friendship with Mrs. Mukherji. I may be flattering myself, but I think she likes my low-key style far better than Suji’s unsubtle efforts, and I am beginning to genuinely enjoy her gentle, soothing company.
Then yesterday, I finally received a letter from Ponnammal, in one of the envelopes I had given her. She had written four pages in her childish, untidy scrawl. After my afternoon tea, I sat down and read it from beginning to end, and then read it again. And I smiled to myself, satisfied.